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xmas cookie boxes 2013

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When I was in college, I used to open my door during final exams and find a box of cookies underfoot.  This meant that Jessica had been hard at work, somehow baking off hundreds of cookies in between studying for and taking exams.  For the record, getting a surprise box of cookies delivered to your door is kind of like getting asked to prom, or winning the lottery – I never knew why I made the list, or what made me a good enough friend to deserve cookies.  I was just happy to find them – there’s nothing quite like starting your day with cookies that someone else made for you.  Jessica’s cookies were all handed down from her German grandmother, and were so good that I would begrudgingly share them with my family, lest they miss out on truly excellent cookies.  This brings me to the truism of cookies: they’re meant for sharing.   Continue reading

almond paste + almond butter + almond extract = cake

almond ginger cake

Here’s another cake that’s delicious when unadorned with any accoutrements.  This is a cake made with almond paste, which I’ve found makes a cake with a moist but firm crumb.  This cake bakes for a long time (as did the other almond paste cake that I like), but the crust that it develops stays soft, unlike a regular butter cake.  Cakes like these will also cut beautifully with a serrated knife, as the crumb is tender but a little bit dense.  (Does the photo of this cake remind anyone of a Wayne Thiebaud painting?  It’s something about the plain background and the slight lack of focus…) Continue reading

transcendence in the guise of very delicious cake

vanilla bean bundt cake

If you have leftover buttermilk, as I did, you should make this cake. This cake is a little lighter than a traditional pound cake, with a bit of tang from the buttermilk. It still has the tight and tender crumb of a pound cake, as well as the caramelized-butter imbued crust on the cake’s exterior.  The crust will stay crispy on the first day, then soften after it’s wrapped, so if you like it crispy, plan on eating it as close to baking it as possible.  Unlike a traditional pound cake, this one does not taste eggy straight out of the oven (the traditional pound cake I like is best eaten at least a day after baking it).  Probably has to do with the leavening depending on both good cake structure and artificial leavening (both baking soda and baking powder).   Continue reading

Alice Medrich is the sh*t

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I am invariably disappointed by brownies from the store, be they artisanal or made from a box (the sole exception being the gluten-free King Arthur brownie mix).  As you know, I already have a favorite brownie recipe, which is more akin to brownie-flavored fudge than anything else.  However, the activation energy required to make those brownies, while admittedly lower than what’s required to make, say, a layer cake, is high enough from the chore of chopping chocolate.  Then you have to let the brownies cool for hours, and there you have it – desire to make brownies plummets.

Here to step into that breach is this recipe, which has a very low activation energy because it will require one bowl, a spoon, and things that are all in your pantry – they just need to be measured out.  Alice Medrich – whose chocolate wafers have also found a home in my heart – is a wizard with all things chocolate, and she does not disappoint here.  These brownies are reminiscent of an upscale version of a box brownie (likely also because they contain no chocolate).  They’re more dark than sweet, so you may want to add a few tablespoons more sugar if you prefer your brownies sweet, or add a frosting or glaze on top.  They’re intense and fudgy, without making you feel like you’re eating an entire week’s calories.  Best of all, they manage to have a slightly crunchy top to add a bit of textural contrast (make sure you stir in the eggs with verve – that’s where the crunch comes from!).  Cut these into small squares and eat with a glass of milk on hand. Continue reading

bananas foster bundt cake

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I made a bunch of cake for my birthday back at the end of January, and to my mind, the winner was the bananas foster pound cake – a banana bundt cake with rum in both the cake and the glaze. Since then, I’ve been working on maximizing the banana and the foster flavor in the cake. It mystified me when I made the cake for the first time, and continues to mystify me, that the original recipe uses white sugar. Every bananas foster recipe I’ve ever come across uses brown sugar, and I followed suit by switching out the white sugar for dark brown sugar. I fiddled with the amount of sugar as well, after finding the cake to be a bit too sweet as written; I tried 2 1/2 cups and 2 cups, settling on the latter because the cake retained its structural integrity while not being too sweet. This amount of sugar also dovetails well with the use of very ripe bananas, since they are sweeter than merely ripe bananas.

I also felt that three bananas didn’t provide quite enough banana flavor; the first time I made the cake, my bananas weren’t quite ready enough to into the batter – they were still just on the cusp of ripeness for eating. The second and third times I made the cake, I waited until the bananas were dark brown, nearly squishy, and the kitchen was perfumed with the smell of very ripe banana. (You want your bananas to be light brown when you peel them, but not translucently so.) The second time I made the cake, I felt that it was a tad too dense, so I cut back from five bananas and settled on four. The peeled bananas weighed 400 grams on the scale, so just make sure your green or yellow bananas weigh more than that when you get them from the store. Continue reading

easy applesauce cake

This will be shocking to you, but I don’t always seek out the most complicated recipes I can get my hands on! Sometimes I like to get something in the oven as fast as I can, and this recipe is one that fits the bill. It comes together in about 10 minutes and then pops in the oven. It’s not the most gorgeous cake I’ve ever seen, with a tender, slightly loose crumb that doesn’t release from the pan completely evenly – this isn’t a cake that will slice particularly gracefully. It is, however, delicious, with plenty of apple flavor and just the right balance of spices.

This is a cake you could even eat for breakfast, because it involves relatively little in the way of fats (oil and eggs). It’s moist, but not overly so – something that can plague oil-based cakes. You could make this with just a regular whisk, but I think using a hand mixer helps emulsify the batter better.  If you have the time and wish to spend more than 10 minutes making this cake, I recommend making the applesauce yourself – you will have that much more control over what goes into it, and how concentrated it is. I simmered my applesauce for about 5 hours, and it had a silky, slightly unctuous mouthfeel that you don’t get from storebought applesauce, somewhere between applesauce and apple butter. It also had a more concentrated apple flavor than regular applesauce. No need to pass it through a food mill unless you left the peels in – it gets smoother the longer it cooks. Continue reading

chocolate + lemon

Having mentioned my favorite chocolate wafer recipe, I figured that I should also put it up! Of all of the chocolate-and-fruit pairings, I love chocolate and lemon the best – the richness of the chocolate pairs well with the acidity and floral flavor of the lemon. It’s a pairing that is less sweet than chocolate and raspberry, and more unexpected than chocolate and orange. I also find that the lemon stands up to the chocolate, whereas raspberry and orange are meeker pairings. For those of you who don’t want your chocolate adulterated with fruit, well, I’ll just tell you that you’re missing out. All of this, however, is just a preamble to say that I make these chocolate wafers primarily to make icebox cakes.

Specifically, an icebox cake made from layers of wafers and lemon mascarpone cream. The lemon mascarpone cream is something I’ve used in the past to both fill and frost a cake, so if you’re looking for a cake frosting, this one is excellent. It has a bit more body from the mascarpone cream, which helps it keep its shape better than a whipped cream frosting (the healthy dose of gelatin also helps). I made it for a cake that I brought to work a while back, and only used about half of it; the rest of it got made into icebox cake with Anna’s brand gingersnaps (my favorite for making cheesecake crusts). The wonder of icebox cakes is osmosis: you take something very dry, combine it with something relatively wet, and you end up with something that tastes like a cross between cake and pudding. Many icebox cakes are made with storebought wafers and whipped cream, and are popular in the summer, when turning on the oven is anathema. Continue reading

Thomas Keller Oreos (TKOs)


I’ve seen a lot of recipes for oreos over the past year or so, as it has become increasingly trendy to make classic American treats at home (twinkies, hostess cupcakes, oreos, ketchup, etc).  I usually pass them by, thinking that while homemade hostess cupcakes are great, nothing could be better than storebought, mass-produced Oreos.  There’s something about the balance that storebought Oreos achieve that remains elusive in so many homemade recipes, and from the recipe below, I think it comes down to texture and salt.  The recipe in this post comes as close as possible to replicating the salty cookie, sweet filling balance, and the chocolate cookie has a sandy texture that is similar to that of storebought Oreos.  This being a recipe developed by Thomas Keller, I found in my tests that there was no need to fiddle with its proportions.  I have, however, rewritten the instructions in a lot more detail, to provide more guidance on how the dough behaves.  You can make these cookies with a hand mixer or stand mixer, but it is much, much easier in a food processor.  Making them with a hand mixer will take you about 20 minutes of mixing to get the dough to wet crumbs, at which point it can be mooshed into a disk of dough.

When I included these cookies in this year’s xmas cookie boxes, I was looking for a dark chocolate wafer.  Typically I would use my go-to Alice Medrich chocolate wafer recipe that I use for icebox cakes, but I wanted something here that looked a bit fancier, so I used just the cookie part of the TKO recipe, without the filling.  I had scads of leftover cookies, so I decided to test the filling – my first impression was that the white chocolate ganache would overwhelm the chocolate cookie.  I also didn’t know how much moisture the cookie would absorb from the ganache, and I generally pick cookies for the boxes that I know will go stale very slowly.  I can now happily tell you – and I believe my co-workers would agree – that the filling is definitely a good idea, and that the cookies more than stand up to it for at least a week.  Further than a week, I don’t know, because the cookies were long gone by then.  The cookies do absorb a little bit of moisture from the filling – just enough so that the cookie sticks together and doesn’t fall apart when you bite into it – but they remain crisp overall. Continue reading

the most complicated (and delicious) beef bourgignon you’ll ever make

I had my parents over for Christmas Eve dinner, and wanted to make something special for them.  Those of you who know me well, also know that I really love adding extra steps to recipes, to maximize depth of flavor.  My co-worker had been talking about making beef bourgignon for a dinner party a few weeks ago, and I decided to follow suit.  She had used Ina Garten’s recipe, and I used that one as a base, adapting it with parts of the mushroom bourgignon recipe from Smitten Kitchen.  What you end up with is a beef bourgignon that’s totally worth the half-day’s work that goes into it: satisfying and warming, with a depth of flavor that you only get when you take your time.  It better be, with two bottles of wine and two pounds of mushrooms packed in there in addition to the beef!

To discuss the recipe a little more, I knew I wanted to double the Ina Garten recipe, but it had no mushrooms and doubling it would call for two bottles of wine.  Knowing the limitations of the size of my dutch oven, I split the recipe into two parts, beef and mushrooms, and devoted a bottle of wine to each part.  I also didn’t want to overcook the mushrooms, so I took a cue from Thomas Keller and cooked them separately from the beef (the carrots in the beef were pretty soft by the time they came out of the oven, and the onions basically turned into mush – delicious mush!).   Splitting the beef from the mushrooms also allowed me to get more of the beef stock into the finished dish, primarily through the reduced wine-stock mixture.   By the way, a lot of recipes call for actual tomatoes, but I thought the tomato paste worked well – you get the tomato flavor without the extra liquid, which allows you more space for wine! Continue reading

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